|May 2000 Column||www.virtualindian.org|
|Home / Features / Ace Factory|
this hobby leads us on journeys, of the mind as well as the map. This time,
it was a simple matter of driving for 15 minutes, across a bridge and into
a blighted section of Philadelphia, to find the cradle of the mighty Indian
In assembling a Web site devoted to Ace motorcycles, Rohan Bradney of Australia included a brochure listing the factory’s Philadelphia street address, which he mentioned to our e-mail discussion group. Eli Sentman and I, both living nearby and having more than a passing acquaintance with the city, jumped at the challenge of finding it. As the owner of a 1940 Indian Four, direct descendant of the Ace, Eli had a real stake in tracking down this historic structure. I suppose my 101 Scout gave me a roundabout connection, because its frame proportions may have been lifted from the Ace, which Indian acquired and added to its stable in 1927, the year before the 101 came out. But the real reason I got caught up in the excitement was the prospect of doing some nifty detective work with a map.
I began by breaking the cardinal rule of always looking for the simplest solution first. The intersection listed no longer exists, so I went to great pains in speculating how these two streets may have once met, if this one changed names at some point here and that one wound up adopting an alias there. It turns out AMCA official Doug Strange had already found the building – kissed it, in fact – and was able to give us the current intersection, Sepviva Street and Castor Avenue where it once must have been part of Erie Avenue. One of his visits was in 1998 during a commemoration of the 75th anniversary of an Ace speed feat, with the mayor and three Aces on hand (only one suit missing!). As we made arrangements to meet there one Saturday, Eli invited Ken Smith along. Ken not only owns a 1938 Four, but he lives not all that far from the factory, though in a residential area that’s incomparably nicer. Eli said that if the weather was good, he might ride down, and I let my imagination get away from me and envisioned him and Ken posing in front of the building on their Fours, with me holding a borrowed Ace crankcase, which I learned later the owner had sold.
It turned out to be a cold, gloomy day, as if this decrepit, trash-strewn, largely abandoned neighborhood needed any help in depressing us. The night before, I had mapped out a route to the factory, using such wily tactics as tallying how many streets I would pass on the right before a turn, ignoring the names except for major roads or the last one before I get there. It’s important to tune out distracting but insignificant features along the lines of the site in question being smack up against a railroad trestle. This allows you to drive right past it, concentration unbroken, then hone your illegal U-turn skills.
Before embarking, I heard a phone message from Eli saying we were supposed to meet at a Dunkin’ Donuts and follow Ken to the factory. Eli had finally gotten my correct phone number on his machine after a hasty e-mail in which I typed it wrong. He first called the incorrect number and got a fellow who listened politely to the directions before Eli called him “Bob” and learned it was someone else. This mystery person explained that everything seemed to make sense because there was a Dunkin’ Donuts near his home. “Well, I guess you know where we’re going now, in case you want to join us!” Eli replied.
I reached Eli en route on his cell phone and told him I would probably just go straight to the factory and wait for them there. This was partly because I had mapped out the route so carefully, but there was another consideration. Ken had told Eli to take the Aramingo Avenue exit off I-95. I looked at the map and noticed there were two places where you could pick up that road, and I was uncertain how either would be labeled on the signs. So I decided to stick with what seemed like a more certain plan. I found the area of the factory with time to spare and narrowed it down to one of two buildings, then backtracked to take a stab at where I thought the Dunkin’ Donuts might be. Ken’s prominently parked Vincent left no doubt.
Eli was a little late, but he would have been justified in being very late. He had taken the wrong Aramingo Avenue exit, and, true to Ken’s directions, there was another Dunkin’ Donuts a couple of miles up on the right. In Eli’s spot, I would have been gripped by now with the sensation that every move was leading into a parallel universe where things only seem to be lining up right. Of course, a more rational explanation presents itself: Starting from random phone numbers in New Jersey or random exits off I-95, there will always be a Dunkin’ Donuts a couple of miles down the road on the right.
Joined by Eli’s friend Bugman (used to repair VWs), we followed Ken the short distance to the factory. A note from Doug allowed us to identify the main building and two others behind it. The one fronting the road housed the business offices and experimental department, while the next one back was the assembly plant and a third one in a courtyard contained the foundry. Check out Eli’s photos at his Web site. As we got our bearings, Mother Nature seemed to be winking at us for having finally run our quarry to ground: Eli saw a red fox only about 10 feet away, ducking under an abandoned car along the alley. Though I had heard about deer invading Philadelphia through its extensive park system, I had no idea there might be foxes way down here, deep within this huge city, surrounded by vast expanses of concrete and congested roads.
I suspected the buildings would be in sorry shape but pictured a dignified state of soot-muffled decline rather than this chaotic jumble of junked cars and trash blowing around and some sort of nefarious doings in one of the buildings. Actually, Doug says this was a sheet-metal factory as of recently, but Santa’s elves sure seemed to regard strangers nosing around as potential Grinches sent by the law.
Still, these are brick monuments to those who invested their dreams and ambitions in the smooth-running, low-slung, cleanly styled Ace motorcycles from 1920 until 1924, when the finances unraveled, though production continued under other ownership. This was their center of the universe in good times and bad. Not far away, company founder William G. Henderson met his untimely end in 1922 in an accident while test-riding the latest Ace. Then the next year on nearby Roosevelt Boulevard, Red Wolverton set an unofficial world speed record of 129.6 m.p.h. on an Ace XP4.
Under Indian’s stewardship, the Four evolved from its original nimble, scrappy configuration to the stately highway cruiser so prized by collectors today. So the legacy rolls on. Whenever Eli or Ken or any other Four rider twists the throttle to unleash an authoritative rumble, the echoes reverberate a long way – all the way back to a rather sad compound of buildings in a forgotten corner of Philadelphia.
Bob lives in New Jersey
and regularly rides his 37"
1928 101 Scout. Bob is an
occasional contributor to
the AMCA magazine, and
other publications -and,
of course, one of the
monthly VI columnists!
Ace Factory photos by
More photos on Eli's website!
Sepviva Street and Castor Avenue, Philadelphia, PA. The address of the former Ace factory.
Ken, Eli and Bob
The Ace front building which contained the offices and experimental department.